Sophia and Giles Theodore Pilcher
Women’s Suffrage campaigners from Godalming
Born in Machynlleth, Wales, in 1852, Sophia Margaretta Pilcher (née Lewis), was the daughter of John Lewis, a clerk in holy orders. She was a science graduate of Bedford College, London, obtaining a BSc in 1883 and she continued to hold a lifelong interest in the affairs of the college and educational matters. Sophia was an active women’s suffrage campaigner and treasurer of the Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society. She and her husband Giles overcame personal tragedy to play a crucial role in the local suffrage campaign and support women’s education. Their story also shows the importance of local newspapers for reporting on suffrage meetings in the absence of any surviving formal archives.
On 20 December 1884, Sophia married Giles Theodore Pilcher (b.1849) at St James’ Church, Paddington. Giles’ occupation is described in the parish marriage register as a ‘gentleman’. Prior to his marriage, Giles had been rector of Letcombe Bassett in Berkshire. He had studied at Corpus Christi College from 1868-1873 obtaining his MA in 1875. The 1881 Census lists his occupation as rector and farmer but in 1882 he relinquished his office as priest, having lost his faith, and by the end of his life had become a humanist. Giles was co-opted on to the London School Board in 1884 but lost his seat in the 1885 election (Alumni Oxoniensis).
By 1891 the Census shows the couple were living at Kingswood Hanger in Gomshall with their son, Lewis Theodore, aged 2 years. They had moved from London because Sophia was expecting a second child and it would be healthier for their young family. Unfortunately, The London Daily News, 20 January 1892, carried the announcement of the death of their infant daughter aged 10 days. The family was beset with sad news: on 6 June 1893, the Sussex Agricultural Express reports the tragic accidental drowning of their son and only child, Lewis Theodore, at only four years and two months old, along with his nurse Elizabeth Sibley, whilst staying with his grandmother in Oxford (Bolton Evening News, 1 June 1893). Sophia, whilst still grieving, continued with her academic studies and it is reported in the Kent and Sussex Courier that she had passed the University Extension afternoon course on Shakespeare with distinction.
Up until 1907, electoral registers show that their main residence was 29 Dawson Street in Bayswater, London, however, by 1908, Giles is listed in the electoral register as a householder at “Treryn” [later “Treen”, Hindhead Road]. About this time the couple were together involved in establishing the Godalming and District Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, with Sophia becoming branch treasurer and Giles becoming a prominent local advocate and speaker in favour of the cause.
“Treen” was located on Hindhead Road, near Charterhouse School. Sophia and Giles were financially secure, employing a cook and two housemaids (1911 Census).On 10 October 1908, Sophia presided at a Women’s Liberal Association meeting at Ward Street Hall, Guildford, on the subject of women’s suffrage. The Surrey Advertiser commented that the attendance of around thirty people was evidence of the lack of support for the issue in the area. Giles and Sophia’s attendance on the platform of a meeting of the Godalming Women’s Suffrage Society in the Court Room at Municipal Buildings was reported in the Surrey Advertiser on 4 December 1909.
At a Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society meeting at Theodora Powell’s home at Munstead Rough, it was reported that Giles Pilcher suggested a copy of the resolution passed by the meeting be sent to both Mr Asquith and Mr Balfour (Surrey Advertiser, 28 February 1910). On 2 March the Surrey Advertiser carried a report of a meeting of the Guildford Women’s Suffrage Society, chaired by Giles, at which he congratulated those who had set up a National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS) branch in Guildford. It was also reported that Sophia attended the meeting in her capacity as treasurer.
The couple both attended an open-air meeting held in Wharf Street, Godalming (Surrey Advertiser, 7 September 1910), at which the views and position of the “Antis” were called into question. Giles was in the chair for both this and a subsequent meeting (reported in Surrey Advertiser 21 September 1910) held in Wharf Street.
Giles and Sophia attended the Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society AGM in 1911 (reported in Surrey Advertiser, 25 January 1911), where it was reported that the local branch had doubled its membership and collected many signatures on the “voters petition to Parliament for the enfranchisement of women” during the General Election Campaign the previous January.
The Surrey Advertiser, under the headline “Town Council and Women Suffrage: best traditions of the council broken; refusal to petition parliament”, published a report of a special meeting of the Town Council which discussed a letter they had received from Sophia Pilcher on behalf of the Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society (11 March 1911). The letter asked the council to petition Parliament in support of conferring the parliamentary franchise to women on the same basis as in municipal and local elections as contained in the Conciliation Bill.
Later that month Sophia was under attack from the “Antis” in the letters page of the Surrey Advertiser (22 March 1911). A letter signed “Old Fashioned Person” questioned whether Sophia M Pilcher was actually the real author of a letter previously published in the paper and speculating that it had been written by “some other suffragette desirous of notoriety”.
Giles continued to be active in support of women’s suffrage and in August presided at an open-air meeting on the corner of Wharf Street, Godalming, at which the gathering voted to write to Mr Horne MP asking him to clarify his views on the subject of women’s suffrage. Previously Mr Horne had said he would follow Mr Balfour’s lead in Parliament but he had not done so in a recent vote (Surrey Advertiser, 30 August and 2 September 1911).
Sophia presented the branch financial accounts to the AGM of the Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society (Surrey Advertiser 29 January 1912) and two days later she is listed amongst the suffrage supporters who attended a meeting of the Women’s Freedom League, held in the Godalming Borough Hall, addressed by Charlotte Despard (Surrey Advertiser, 31 January 1912). 1912 was a busy time for Sophia during the spring she was involved in the campaigning work of the Women’s Local Government Association canvassing support for the election of Miss Alison Ogilvy to the local council.
As treasurer of the Godalming and District Women’s Suffrage Society, Sophia was a regular attendee of suffrage meetings organised in the local area, such as that held at the Marshall’s home, Chinthurst Lodge, Wonersh, in September 1912. These “At Home” meetings were typical of the many consciousness raising events and fundraisers organised by NUWSS supporters across the Home Counties.
Like many of the suffrage campaigners Sophia regularly wrote to the local newspapers and in March 1913 she wrote to the editor of the Surrey Advertiser (19 March 1913) on the subject of an Anti-Suffrage Meeting held at Bretts, in Guildford (reported 12 March 1913). The following month the Surrey Advertiser reported on a debate designed to give a platform to both “pro” and “anti” suffrage campaigners, held at the Borough Hall, chaired by Alderman Bridges, the Mayor of Godalming (7 April 1913). The newspaper reports that due to the non-appearance of the invited “Antis” the speakers who did attend presented both pro and anti-suffrage views. Sophia proposed a vote of thanks to the speakers who included Lady Betty Balfour, Sir William Chance, Rev A H Fletcher, Dorothy Hunter, Alison Ogilvy and Arthur Jex Davey.
In July 1913, as the Great Pilgrimage wound its way through Surrey, Sophia and Giles were amongst the hosts who provided overnight accommodation for the Suffrage Pilgrims staying in Godalming and they organised the local meetings (Surrey Advertiser 23 July 1913).
During the war years Sophia and Giles continued to support the suffrage cause financially. They sent regular contributions to the NUWSS General Fund and the Franchise Fund (Common Cause 4 April 1913, 12 March 1915 and 30 November 1917). Common Cause reported a Women’s Suffrage Society meeting in Wonersh, at which Giles gave a speech (3 March 1916).
Both the Pilchers were actively interested in the promotion of the education of women, as evidenced by their support of Bedford College. In 1918, an advertisement for subscriptions to the Fawcett Scholarships at Bedford College asked for contributions in the form of cheques to the order of G T Pilcher, Hon Treasurer, Bedford College, Regents Park, NW1 (Common Cause 22 February 1918). Common Cause, the newspaper of the NUWSS ran an advertisement in 17 August 1917 for female students to undertake post-graduate research in the Pilcher Research Laboratory at Bedford College.
The Pilchers continued to live at “Treen” for many years and were still in residence in 1934 when Giles died at the age of 85. No date of death has been located for Sophia.
Contributed by Miriam Farr, volunteer, The March of the Women project
Census returns, 1881-1911, Ancestry, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf at Surrey History Centre
Common Cause and other newspapers available on British Newspapers Online, accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf at Surrey History Centre
Gale Vault accessed via Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf at Surrey History Centre
Surrey Advertiser microfilms held at Surrey History Centre
Alumni Oxoniensis, Surrey History Centre Local Studies Library Collection
Ordnance Survey map XXX1-11, section showing ‘Treen’, the home of Sophia and Giles Pilcher situated between Hindhead Road and Charterhouse Road, Special Edition 1912 (Surrey History Centre)
For cuttings relating to Mr and Mrs Pilcher (Sophia M Lewis), collected by Dame Margaret Tuke, principal Bedford College, 1906-1929, see Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL collection ref. BC RF/130/3/1)