Julia Huxley, the campaign for women’s suffrage and Prior’s Field School
Prior’s Field School was the fulfilment of a dream for Julia Huxley, granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold, the reforming headmaster of Rugby School and niece of poet Matthew Arnold. Married to Charterhouse schoolmaster Leonard Huxley, she had long cherished an ambition to open a school of her own. She bought a five-acre plot and a moderate sized house on the outskirts of Godalming and, in January 1902, opened her progressive school for girls with just six pupils and her seven-and-a-half-year-old son, Aldous.
A brilliant scholar and gifted teacher, Mrs Huxley had advanced and original ideas about education. She allowed the girls an unusual freedom of thought and expression and encouraged a love of books, culture and solitude.
By the time of her death in 1908, at the tragically young age of 46, she had established a thriving and successful school and one which was already taking the subject of women’s suffrage very seriously. The school magazines show that the girls were passionately involved in what was happening around them, and we know that “discussions on Women’s suffrage” … ” raged up and down the school” (Prior’s Field Magazine, 1908).
We must remember that at this time few girls enjoyed the education their brothers had at public and grammar schools. Even if a woman got to university, as a handful from the school were starting to do, she could not claim the degree she earned. She was prevented from working alongside men in senior roles in professions such as medicine or the law, or in business, and was generally only deemed capable of lesser work.
The local environment
Surrey was home to many pro-suffrage organisations and notable activists, and many key figures would have been known to the staff and girls at Prior’s Field. Nearby in Compton was Mary Seton Watts, wife of the famous Compton artist G F Watts, and President of the Godalming and District National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
This beautiful painting of Mary Watts by her husband is sponsored by Prior’s Field School and can be viewed at the Watts Gallery, Compton.
Gertrude Jekyll, Surrey’s famous garden designer, a friend of the Huxleys, was also a supporter of the NUWSS. She designed banners for both the Guildford and Godalming branches. The Huxleys, especially Leonard, were keen gardeners, and the gardens at Prior’s Field were laid out under the guidance of Jekyll.
First Hand accounts
Prior’s Field enjoyed first-hand accounts of suffrage marches and conferences, provided by Old Girl, Margy Wetzlar-Coit. Margy and her sister Dolly were amongst the first girls to come to Prior’s Field. Their mother was Adela Wetzlar, a member of the Executive of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage and Honorary Treasurer of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. She made her name as a suffragist and toured Europe for the cause. Margy attended many suffrage events including the International Suffrage Congress which was held in London in 1909. She was thrilled “to hear those great ladies speak, especially Mrs Fawcett. She addressed herself chiefly to us younger members of the audience. ‘Follow the Gleam!’, she exhorted”
Margy also attended the International Suffrage Congress in Budapest 1913. She is pictured here with a group of prominent suffrage campaigners from around the world. This photograph is held by Gothenburg University Library and is reproduced with their kind permission.
A suffragette comes to Prior’s Field
When it was realised that a suffragette was coming to Prior’s Field to give a talk there was some trepidation in the school about what she would be like. The following account of the visit has been adapted from the description published in ‘Prior’s Field Magazine’.
On 11 November 1909, a suffragette Miss [Ray] Costelloe, came to speak to the girls on the campaign. She was a graduate of Newnham, Cambridge, the college co-founded by Mrs Millicent Fawcett, the head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Miss Costelloe would have been known to the headmistress, Mrs Burton-Brown and to the Old Girls from Prior’s Field who had worked so hard to achieve a sought after place at Newnham.
Ray Costelloe was one of a group of Newnham students who travelled around the UK in a caravan explaining to groups of more than 1000 people why they felt women deserved equality. Before the address, opinions had been divided as to whether or not she belonged to that band of heroic ladies who made themselves conspicuous by chaining themselves to railings.
The girls were all secretly relieved to find that, though admiring the courage which enabled the militant advocates of the cause to undergo great physical discomforts, she emphatically belonged to the party which believes that argument, and not force, will win the day.
“I, like most of you I’m sure, have many times in my life desired to be a boy. That is not because I wish to be anything other than I was made, but because I desired the advantages of a boy.
I am working on behalf of Women’s Suffrage because it seems to me the most important question of our time. In my opinion, it is the duty of every woman to do the same.
Nowadays, when Acts of Parliament concern themselves more and more with details, much delay is caused because women are not consulted on points where they have obviously more experience than men. I think that it is absurd that certain professions be allocated to men, and others to women. Why can’t a man with a natural gift for managing children become a nursemaid without being laughed at?
One of the most important points to be addressed is that women are so shamefully underpaid. Women are causing a great many men to be out of work by accepting wages that no self-respecting workman would look at.
Until women are paid equal wages for equal labour, it will be degrading for the women and impossible for the men. This will never be remedied until women get the vote.
To summarise, I desire emancipation for women for three reasons – firstly, on the grounds of abstract justice; secondly, from personal feelings of unfairness at the present situation; and thirdly, on behalf of the women owners of property, who had no share in the management of their possessions.”
Many Prior’s Field girls were suffragists before they heard Miss Costelloe, and were, therefore, all the more convinced. But, there is no doubt she gained some fresh converts, having advocated her cause so cleverly. Read an account of Ray Costelloe’s visit (pdf ( )) in the Prior’s Field Magazine.
This photograph of Ray Costelloe and the suffrage caravan is reproduced with kind permission of the Library of the London School of Economics.
World War I: Prior’s Field girls and war work
The suffragettes ceased campaigning in 1914. Suspending their protests in the face of a greater threat to the nation showed that they were rational and reasonable. Public support and sympathy with the movement had greatly increased following the rough and unjust treatment of protesting women.
Thousands of women also joined the armed forces as non-combatants. Others took over men’s work in the factories and fields. The work done by women in the First World War was going to be vital for Britain’s war effort.
Prior’s Field Old Girls took up work of various kinds to do with the war. Some worked with refugees, others distributed food, dozens worked as nurses or cooks in Red Cross hospitals. Miss Gray, a science teacher, spent the summer holidays mixing chemicals for explosives at a munitions factory in Aberdeen.
A list of war time occupations was printed in the Prior’s Field Magazine, Summer 1915, on pages 28, 29 and 30.
The contribution of women to the war effort became a key factor in obtaining the vote. In 1917, a report on electoral reform universally recommended women’s suffrage, and in 1918 women over 30 who owned a property or had a university education that were allowed to vote.
It was another 10 years before the Equal Franchise Act gave all women the right to vote at the age of 21, on the same terms as men.
A Song for Suffrage
In the early years of Prior’s Field, while Julia Huxley was still the Head, women’s suffrage was a huge topic of debate as it was in most households in the land. Sixth Former Irene Cohen wrote ‘The Suffragist’s Appeal’ in 1908 which was published in the school magazine, to tell the gentlemen of England exactly what she and her friends thought. You can read the full song here (pdf ( )).
Prior’s Field School archive is a rich resource not only for the school community, but for local historians and for those interested in the history of women’s education. If you have any questions about the archive or would like to arrange a visit, please contact School Archivist, Jo Halford – [email protected]
‘Did you attend Prior’s Field as a pupil? We’d love to hear your memories and keep in touch with you.’ Please contact Mrs Halford or our Development and Alumnae Officer, Polly Murray [email protected]
The Priors Field Archive Online has now been launched and can be searched at http://archive.priorsfieldschool.com/. The website contains 5000 digitised pages of Priors Field publications, including the Prior’s Field Magazine, Old Girls’ Magazine, and newsletters dating back to 1909. The site contains lots of references to the suffrage campaign and will be added to in the coming months.
Contribued by Joanne Halford, Prior’s Field School Archivist, for The March of the Women Project.