The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Surrey
“If the law denied a vote to all but the possessors of £5,000 a year, the poorest man in the nation might — and now and then would — acquire the suffrage; but neither birth, nor fortune, nor merit, nor exertion, nor intellect, nor even that great disposer of human affairs, accident, can ever enable any woman to have her voice counted in those national affairs which touch her and hers as nearly as any other person in the nation.” – John Stuart Mill, MP, debate on women’s suffrage in the House of Commons, 20 May 1867.
Early Women’s Suffrage debates and Bills
The roots of the women’s suffrage movement in England lie in the aftermath of the Reform Act of 1832, which extended voting rights among men but not women. On 7 June 1866 the first petition calling for women’s suffrage, bearing the signatures of 1,499 women, was presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill, a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP). Among the signatures of notable supporters such as Josephine Butler, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett was that of Augusta Spottiswoode, who owned property around Peaslake and later served as a Guildford Poor Law Guardian. The petition was unsuccessful but it raised public awareness and led to the first debate on votes for women in parliament in May 1867. Surrey’s first suffrage petition was presented to parliament on 2 May 1870 from Capel, Ockley and the surrounding area.
Following this, several Bills in favour of women’s suffrage were presented to the House of Commons and gained the support of both Liberal and Conservative Members, but it was never enough to pass. The first Bill, called the ‘Women’s Disabilities (Removal) Bill’, was brought to Parliament by Jacob Bright (1871-74), with later readings initiated by William Forsyth (1875), and Leonard Courtney (1878). Suffrage support notices for this Bill survive in the papers of Bertha Marion Broadwood of Capel, who ironically was a staunch anti-suffrage supporter. The subject of women’s suffrage was debated in the House of Commons eighteen times between 1870 and 1904. Extracts of these debates in Parliament can be found at http://www.historyofwomen.org/index.html.
In 1884, the issue of women’s suffrage failed to form part of the Third Reform Act despite strong campaigning for it to be included. From 1886 onwards, every vote taken had shown the majority of MPs in favour of women’s suffrage, but when it came to passing the final Act the vote was always defeated. The campaign had considerable support by 1910, winning over major politicians and becoming a key voting issue for prospective Members of Parliament. Between 1910-1912, various ‘Conciliation Bills’ were put to Parliament which would have given some women the vote, but none were passed.
The early years of the campaign
Campaigns for equal voting rights did not become effective until the end of the century. In 1889, The Women’s Franchise League was formed with the intention of lobbying to secure the vote for married women as well as single and widowed women. In 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded by Millicent Fawcett and it headed a network of local women’s suffrage societies, with a common goal to achieve the same voting rights for women as held by men. Many of these groups had been in existence and raising public awareness since the 1860s; they sought to obtain the vote through legal and peaceful means – lobbying politicians, canvassing public support, and staging protests and marches. Members of these societies were both male and female and were known as suffragists, from which the later, more radical suffragette movement developed.
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst left the NUWSS and, along with her daughter Christabel, formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), arguing that a more drastic means of action was required for women to achieve the vote. From 1903 to 1917, the WSPU was the leading militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in Great Britain. Tactics used included illegal actions such as smashing windows, obstruction, violence, arson, and hunger strike following imprisonment; members became known as suffragettes.
Following a split within the WSPU in 1907, the Women’s Freedom League was formed. While the three societies (the NUWSS, the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League) disagreed over tactics, they all maintained a common goal, and regularly worked together in their efforts to achieve women’s suffrage.
The growth of Suffrage societies across Surrey
In Surrey, the movement appears to have been active from the 1870s, with the first suffrage meeting allegedly being held in Guildford in January 1871, featuring speakers from the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage (established in 1867 and renamed the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1907). However, pro-suffrage meetings at Guildford seem to have been scarce until Dr Kate Mitchell addressed the meeting of the Guildford Women’s Liberal Association (WLA) in January 1890.
In November 1883, the Crosfield family, who were prominent Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) in Reigate, entertained the social reformer Mrs Laura Ormiston Chant and Miss Caroline Biggs (who had signed the first women’s suffrage petition in March 1867). That evening, the women spoke at a meeting in Reigate Public Hall hosted by Joseph Crosfield. The Crosfields remained active in local suffrage affairs, with Margaret becoming secretary of the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1913.
A branch of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage had been formed in Reigate by 1906, with Ruth Pym as secretary, and by 1909 had affiliated to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies to become the Reigate, Redhill and District Society for Women’s Suffrage. Helena Auerbach, who lived at Hethersett, Reigate, was the president and chaired many meetings at Reigate Town Hall featuring speakers such as Millicent Fawcett, Ethel Snowden and local MP, Colonel Rawson. From its commencement the Society was led by women who devoted themselves to the study of everything connected with women’s work, many of whom had been engaged in service in many branches of public activity. On two occasions members of the Society participated in suffrage marches to the Albert Hall in London, boarding specially arranged trains for the events – the first was on 13 June 1908 when over 10,000 women attended, and the second was on 17 June 1911 when numbers reached 40,000. A branch scrapbook, c.1908-c.1913, held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 3266/1) gives a fascinating insight into their work, including details of their meetings and letters to local, national and international newspapers concerning issues relating to women gaining the vote, the Anti-Suffrage movement, and tariff (tax) reform.
In Abinger, Thomas Cecil, 2nd Baron Farrer, and his second wife, Lady (Evangeline) Farrer, were active supporters of women’s suffrage and other women’s movements. Their papers, held at Surrey History Centre (SHC refs 2572, 9792/-) and 9793/-), include letter books and correspondence to various prominent members of the NUWSS and its supporters, such as Millicent Fawcett, Josephine Butler, Sandra Bray, and the Crosfields.
Lord Farrer was president of Leith Hill and District Women’s Suffrage Society which was formed in 1908 with Sandra Bray (wife of Jocelyn Bray,) of Westcott, as secretary, and Sylvia Drew of Westcott and later, Isobel Hecht, as branch chair. By mid 1909 it had 80 members and by 1912, nearly 200 members. Meetings were held at Leatherhead, Dorking and all over the surrounding villages, attracting nationally recognised speakers such as Lady Frances Balfour, Gertrude Baillie-Weaver and Alys Russell (wife of Bertrand Russell). Several members of the group wrote to the Dorking Advertiser complaining that no member of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage would engage in discussion with their meetings at Holmwood; Bertha Broadwood, who was a staunch anti-suffragist, was asked several times but declined (SHC ref 2185/BMB/7/-). A large contingent from Leith Hill NUWSS branch took part in the Suffrage procession in London on 13 June 1913; the secretary by this time was Bessie Rawlings of Dorking, a cousin of Millicent Fawcett. Brockham and Betchworth also had a branch of the NUWSS and in 1913 the secretary was noted as Miss Paquerette Forrester of Red Gables, Brockham Green.
By 1909, the Godalming branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been established, with Mrs Mary Watts (the widow of artist G F Watts), the president and Theodora Powell as secretary. Liberals Sir William and Lady Julia Chance of Orchards, near Bramley, were instrumental in the setting up and support of the branch. Lady Julia was a prolific letter writer on the subject of women’s suffrage to the editors of local and national newspapers. Likewise, Arthur Jex Davey and his wife, Iona, of Ockford House, Godalming, were also Liberals and actively involved in local and national politics. Both were key branch members of the Society, promoting the cause with the Liberal Party and local societies, and lobbying the press. Alison Ogilvy was a member of the Society and in 1911 contributed hand-worked garments for the Sweated Industries Exhibition organised by the Godalming, Guildford, Haslemere and Farnham branches of the NUWSS. She was also one of the first women to be elected to a Town Council anywhere in Britain.
Theodora Powell also co-founded the Guildford and District Women’s Suffrage Society in 1910, with Noeline Baker, as her secretary, following a local petition which gained 580 signatures supporting votes for women. In the first report of the Guildford branch, membership stood at 51. Baker was a New Zealander who had moved to Warren House, Guildford, in 1905. She organized the stewards for a suffragist demonstration in Guildford on 29 Oct 1910 and later took charge of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage register of voluntary women workers (SHC ref Z/361); she was later appointed MBE for her war work.Through her suffrage work in Godalming, Baker became acquainted with Gertrude Jekyll, Surrey’s famous garden designer, who was also a supporter of the NUWSS, designing and working on banners for both the Guildford and Godalming branches.
The Guildford branch had a shop in the High Street from 1913-1919 at which the Guildford Trades and Labour Council held their meetings. By far the largest meeting in Guildford was in July 1913, when, in preparation for the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage to London, meetings were held both afternoon and evening in North Street. The evening meeting on 22 July was deemed to have been the largest public meeting held in the town with 8,000 attendees. Dorothy Hunter, of Haslemere, gave a half hour speech at the meeting which was closed by the police for fear of riot. Dorothy was the daughter of Sir Robert Hunter, and co-founder of the National Trust. She was also a firm supporter of the suffrage campaign. She had a highly successful career as a ‘girl orator’ between 1904 and 1910, speaking for the Liberal Party on behalf of Free Trade and Women’s Suffrage. Dorothy later worked both nationally and locally for these causes and her papers which include correspondence with Millicent Fawcett, are held at Surrey History Centre (SHC ref 1260).
Woking district NUWSS branch was formed in 1910 with Miss H. Laird Cox (Hook Hill Cottage) as its secretary. By 1913 she was succeeded by Miss [Hilda] Davies-Colley (Briarwood), who between 1911-1914 served as a Poor Law Guardian for Guildford Union, was a member of Woking Education Committee and a school manager.
By 1910 there was a NUWSS branch to cover Camberley and District. Mrs Maud Basset, wife of the Rector of Frimley, member of the Fabian Society, and speaker for the National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution, was chair. Evelyn Atkinson of Portesbery Hill, Camberley, was secretary but had previously attended Somerville College and been vice-chairman of the Oxford Women Students’ Women’s Suffrage Society.
In the west of the county, a branch of the NUWSS was established in Farnham, in 1908 by Mary Milton, secretary, and Teresa Wilson, chair. By 1913, the vice-president was Ellen Clarke, headmistress of Farnham Girls’ Grammar School. The NUWSS Haslemere branch had formed in 1908 and for the 1910 election, the branch, under Miss Rees, secretary, had opened a shop promoting their cause. Margaret Marshall, of ‘Tweenways’ (now Hindhead School of Music), was chair of the branch and also a friend of Millicent Fawcett. Cranleigh branch of the NUWSS was formed in 1910.
In 1908, a branch of the NUWSS had been established at Royal Holloway College, Englefield Green. A year later, Agnes Gardiner, who lived in Weybridge, had formed the Weybridge and District branch. By 1913, Egham branch had also been established, with Mrs Fanny Holland, who resided at The Glanty, as co-secretary. The branch met at the Constitutional Hall, Egham (as did the local Anti-Suffrage League).
In the east of the county, there was a NUWSS branch at Epsom by 1913, with Mrs Garrido acting as secretary. A branch also existed at Oxted by 1909, when the secretary was Agnes Jacomb Hood; by 1913 the branch also included Limspfield, by which time the secretary was Mrs Melita Seyd of Spinney Meade, Rockfield Road. Further east, the towns bordering London (now London boroughs) were as politically active as the city itself. Croydon, in particular, had early connections with the movement through high-profile residents such as Mrs W T Malleson, Dorinda Neligan, headmistress of Croydon High School for Girls, and Mrs Grace Cameron-Swan, of Sanderstead, whose husband, Donald, was parliamentary secretary to the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement. The area also held early meetings of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage (1873), and had branches of both the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League.
There were a number of other suffrage groups within the county. The West Surrey branch of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage was formed in January 1914. The chairman, Sir William Chance, was a key supporter and declared that it was ‘important the men should come forward to support actively the women in their great cause’. The church in Surrey provided sympathizers to the suffrage cause. The Church League for Women’s Suffrage, was an organisation that, by devotional and educational means, aimed to ‘band together, on a non-party basis, Suffragists of every shade of opinion who are Church people in order to secure for women the vote in Church and State, as it is or may be granted to men.’ The League had a branch in Godalming by 1913 which counted Mrs Theodore Williams, chairman of the Women’s Local Government Society, as a member.
Other suffrage campaigners who resided in Surrey include Evelyn Atkinson (Camberley), Mrs Edith Hoskyns-Abrahall (West Byfleet), Amy Klein (Reigate), Mrs Laird-Cox (Woking), Miss Davies-Colley (Woking), Miss A M Leake (Egham), Mrs Marshall (Haslemere), Miss P Brockham (Cranleigh), Cicely B Hale (Peaslake) and Elizabeth Gordon (Peaslake) to name but a few. In Epsom and Ewell, Alice Laura Embleton, former student at Sutton High School for Girls, supported the suffragist cause and became a trailblazer for women in the world of entymology.
With thanks to Elizabeth Crawford for additional content.
A full history of the beginnings of the Suffrage Movement in the county and the names of those involved can be found in Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide (Routledge, 2006), from which much of the above information comes. A reference copy can be found in the local studies library collection.
For an index of references to suffrage organisations in Surrey and indexes of suffrage activities and individuals in the county see our Suffrage Indexes page here.
Read more about the growth of the suffrage campaign in Surrey and the key players with The March of the Women project exhibition
For profiles of Votes for Women supporters in London boroughs once formerly part of Surrey, including Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, Lilian Lenton, Alice Meynell, Bertrand Russell and Virgina Woolf, see the ‘How the Vote was Won’ website http://www.thesuffragettes.org/map/.