• March of the Women

Merstham suffragists

Unknown ‘pilgrims’ en-route to London, 1913 (The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library).

Merstham in Surrey, not far from Reigate, has a hidden history with women interested in politics and women’s suffrage.

Agnes Maud Roffey, was born 21 August 1873, to parents George and Emma Louise. Agnes was the third of six children with elder siblings Edith and George and younger siblings Harold, Beatrice and Helena. In the 1900s Agnes lived with her parents at The Grange in Merstham.

Opposite them lived the Stephens family. Adelaide Charlotte Edith Simpson, born in 1881, married Peter Stephens in 1903 and the couple lived in a house called Rookwood with their three children Elizabeth, Rachel and George.

Agnes had political interests and was chairman of the Merstham, Chipstead, Chaldon and Gatton branch of the Women’s Unionists Association. In 1906 she presided over a meeting held at The Grange, which the Stephens attended. During the meeting the point was made that “the interest also that women were now taking in politics would stand them in good stead when the day of universal suffrage came” (Surrey Mirror, 27 July 1906). A year later, in attending a meeting of the Redhill Women’s Unionists Association, she is quoted as saying she felt the Association allowed women “to meet on an equal footing” and that the “suffragettes had shown them how women should not interest themselves in politics”, but that women were the great organiser and were needed within the ranks of political parties and groups (Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 23 February 1907).

Women’s suffrage pilgrimage map, 1913
(The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library, ref 10/54/097)

In 1913, members of the law abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) took part in the Great Pilgrimage, marching from different ends of the country to Hyde Park, London. The Surrey Mirror recorded how the ‘pilgrims’ arrived in Merstham at 11am on the 24 July accompanied by local women, Agnes and Adelaide (1 August 1913). ‘Pilgrims’ were entertained by the Walker family at Merstham House and “Miss Walker herself motored some of the footsore and weary several stages on their journey” (Surrey Mirror, 1 August 1913).

Agnes went on to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse during World War One; her younger brother, Harold, was killed in the trenches, age 42. She moved to Rye, Sussex, after her parents died. In 1926 Common Cause, the newspaper of the NUWSS, lists her as a successful female candidate in Municipal Elections in Rye (5 November 1926). Agnes passed away in 1932, leaving her estate to her elder brother, Sir George Roffey. Her obituary makes several references to her political work with the Divisional Conservative Association and the Women’s Conservative Association but no note of any suffrage work she may have done.

Adelaide was the Vice-Chair of the Reigate Rural War Pension Sub Commission, she travelled back by boat from Natal via Cape Ports and Madeira, docking in Southampton in 1929 and died in Surrey in December 1937.

We have been unable to identify any other examples of either Agnes’ or Adelaide’s suffrage work. Neither of them appear on the newspaper indexing that we have completed, apart from the above mentioned examples and they do not appear in Common Cause prior to 1926. Agnes’s early comments on the suffragettes were consistent with the disapproval of the extreme tactics that were being taken at the time and did not stop many women from joining the lawful NUWSS, or mean that she was anti-women’s suffrage. It is possible that they were both attending the meetings of their local Reigate and Redhill branch of the NUWSS but in a lot of cases only those involved in the planning or speakers are mentioned in the newspaper articles. This is a common issue we have discovered trying to identify suffragist, and less so suffragette, campaigners – unless they are making the speech or being arrested we do not hear about them.

Contributed by Holly Parsons, The March of the Women Project Officer.

Sources:

Ancestry
British Newspaper Archive
Common Cause, 5 November 1926
Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser, 23 February 1907
Surrey Mirror, 27 July 1906
Surry Mirror, 1 August 1913
Surrey Mirror, 29 January 1932
Surrey and the Great War, Agnes Roffey
Surrey and the Great War, Harold Roffey

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