Activism and militant suffragettes in Surrey
Women’s suffrage supporters made their views heard in a variety of different ways and Surrey saw its fair share of activism. Impatient at the lack of progress in the fight for the vote, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in 1903, led by the charismatic Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst. The WSPU motto was ‘Deeds not Words’ and members, known as suffragettes, employed militant tactics which were impossible to ignore. In 1905 suffragette militancy began, comprising a campaign of boisterous protest (often leading to riot), targeted window smashing and property damage. Inevitably, this led to arrests, imprisonment and the first hunger-strike in July 1908, by WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop, of Peaslake. Forcible feeding began soon after. Under increasing pressure to resolve the situation, while not letting a hunger-striking suffragette die in prison, the government rushed through the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act in April 1913, following the tortuous hunger strike of Lillian ‘Lillie’ Lenton, a militant suffragette who had become seriously ill through forcible feeding. More commonly known as The ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, this notorious Act allowed for the temporary release of hunger striking suffragettes (‘mice’) who had become ill and weak but also allowed their re-arrest and re-imprisonment once recovered.
WSPU meetings were held in several locations around Surrey. For example, Redhill had a branch of the WSPU by 1910, with Mrs Richmond of Fengates House acting as secretary; she was later replaced by Grace Hardy of Station Road. Woking also had a branch of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was established by 1911 partly due to the most prominent local campaigner Ethel Smyth, composer and author. As a result of her friendship with the Pankhursts, Ethel decided to suspend most of her musical activities to devote her energies to assisting and promoting the movement. A successful composer, author and passionate sportswoman, Ethel had met and become enchanted by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1910. She suspended her musical career and for two years her uncompromising and energetic spirit fuelled the WSPU campaign. Mrs Horace Barrett was the Woking WSPU secretary; in June 1912, member Mrs Skepwith, also a member of the Tax Resistance League, had her goods sold at auction to pay for her overdue tax.
South east Surrey had traditionally been an area of non-conformism and reform and by the late nineteenth century was home to radical but wealthy residents, particularly in the villages around Dorking. These included Frederick and Margaret Pennington, who lived at Broome Hall, Coldharbour, and Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence of South Holmwood. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence’s sister, Caroline Aspland Lawrence, was also a suffragette and lived at Hatchetts, Newdigate, with Marion Leighfield, an activist who was arrested after a protest in Westminster, in October 1908. After Emmeline’s death in 1954, Frederick married Helen Craggs, another stalwart of the suffrage movement.
In the north of the county and over into London, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was a member of the WSPU and lived at Hampton Court with her sister, Princess Catherine Duleep Singh, who had affiliations with the Esher and Molesey branch of the NUWSS. Later Sunbury resident, Rosa May Billinghurst, joined the WSPU in 1907 and quickly became a familiar face at demonstrations, widely known as the ‘cripple suffragette’ by the news media. Despite being disabled with polio as a child she used her hand-propelled tricyle, decorated in the suffragette colours, to full effect and took part in the demonstration outside the House of Commons in London on 18 November 1910, a day which became known as Black Friday. On this notorious day suffragettes faced a six-hour long onslaught from the police and many were assaulted as a small delegation attempted to enter parliament.
Women showed themselves to be ever-adaptable for the suffrage cause. The Actresses Franchise League used its members’ skills to put on suffrage-themed plays and processions, and sell suffrage literature to raise funds for the cause. Artists and embroiderers worked on publicity material and banners. The Suffrage Atelier provided artworks designed by artists who wished their work to be used for banners, posters and other publicity material for the militant campaign. Agnes Eleanor Hope Joseph was one of the founding members of the Suffrage Atelier and lived at Little Gallery’ Ashtead, from 1920-1924. One member of the Atelier was Gladys Letcher, who is listed as residing at ‘Ferndale’, Bath Road, Woking on the 1911 Census. Even sport played its part – on 4 July 1908 racing driver Muriel Thompson won the first Ladies’ motor race held at Booklands race track in Weybridge. A year later she was the chauffeur for the WSPU, including on Mrs Pankhurst’s national tour.
Another Peaslake resident, an artist called Marie Brackenbury, captured her frustration at the lack of progress with the Votes for Women campaign in her cartoon ‘History Up To Date And More So By a Suffragette Pavement Artist’. The Liberal government continued to refuse women access to public meetings or meet with suffrage deputations, so the suffragettes turned to militancy.
Hunger strikes, safe havens and the 1911 Census boycott in Surrey
Many suffragettes had homes in the Surrey hills and the area provided a number of safe havens for women recovering from imprisonment and hunger strike following release from prison. Peaslake, in particular, became something of a hub. The village was described in 1912 by Edwin Waterhouse, who resided in nearby Holmbury St Mary, as ‘rather a nest of suffragettes’ and that ‘there are fourteen ladies there of very advanced views’. One of these was Hilda Brackenbury, who along with her daughters, Georgina and Marie, were all members of the WSPU and participated in militant activity. Their family home, Brackenside, in Peaslake, was used as a safe haven by many women, including Emmeline Pankhurst.
Harry Daley, who worked as a delivery boy for Kingham’s grocers around the Dorking area recalls visiting Marion Wallace-Dunlop in Peaslake in his memoirs:
“Miss Wallace Dunlop, the suffragette, impressive in tweeds and a no-nonsense manner, with her pretty niece and comparatively dim companion, all painting on their easels at the edge of the sunlit common outside their cottage, became a well-known sight and a vivid memory” (‘Dorking 1916-1925’, p.11, draft for This Small Cloud SHC ref 7832/3).
Interestingly, Wallace-Dunlop purchased her cottage in Peaslake from suffragette Helen Gordon Liddle, author of The Prisoner (1912), an article which recounted her month-long experience of imprisonment in Strangeways and the horrors of forcible feeding.
Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence of The Mascot, South Holmwood (now The Dutch House) were key figures in the campaign, organising weekly suffrage meetings there from 1906 to 1912. The Pethick Lawrences invited women to recuperate at The Mascot, including seasoned protestor Lady Constance Lytton, author of ‘Prisons and Prisoners, Some Personal Experiences’, which appeared in A Celebration of Women Writers (Heinemann, 1914). Frederick and Emmeline edited the Votes for Women newspaper, established in October 1907, and Emmeline was treasurer of the WSPU. She is also credited with devising the Union’s purple, white and green colour scheme. In 1912 Frederick and Emmeline were arrested, as leaders of the WSPU, for inciting a window-smashing campaign. The Mascot and its contents were seized by bailiffs in November 1912 to pay the Pethick Lawrences’ court costs following their prosecution but fellow WSPU members bought their furniture and returned it to them. Whilst imprisoned both Frederick and Emmeline went on hunger strike and were forcibly fed.
In addition to all her commitment as Wimbledon WSPU’s Honorary Organising Secretary, Rose Lamartine Yates opened up her Wimbledon home, Dorset Hall, to suffrage activists who were in need of recuperation from their exhausting daily schedules. Rose herself has been imprisoned in 1909, following her arrest for attending a deputation, led by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, to present a petition under the Bill of Rights to the Prime Minister.
In 1911 a census of the population was due to be taken. The Women’s Freedom League (WFL) protested against this and many women defaced or refused to complete their census returns. WSPU members soon followed suit. One of those who defaced her census return by writing ‘No Vote, No Census’ across it was Woking resident and WSPU supporter, Ethel Smyth.
Ethel’s suffragette battle song The March of the Women, written the same year, was sung by suffragette supporters throughout London and elsewhere. Her uncompromising and energetic spirit led her to become a driving force in the women’s movement and on 9 March 1912 she was arrested and taken to Bow Street Police Station for smashing the window of an anti-suffrage politician’s office; she was sentenced to two months in Holloway prison. On the same protest Marie Brackenbury was arrested alongside her sister Georgiana and their 71 year old mother, Hilda.
Following Emmeline Pankhurst’s release from hunger strike in prison in April 1913, she was sheltered by Ethel at her home in Hook Heath, Woking. However, the cottage was under constant surveillance by the Surrey Constabulary who, on 26 May, re-arrested Emmeline under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act as she attempted to leave.
Lillie Lenton had been arrested in February 1913 on suspicion of having set fire to the Tea House at Kew Gardens and went on hunger-strike. She features on the inside panel of chair 1, part of The Jurors bronze sculpture by Hew Locke for the Magna Carta anniversary at Runnymede (SHC ref PX/56/116). She is depicted wearing the medals and badges reflecting suffragette imprisonment, hunger-strike and activism; the image is derived from a 1912 surveillance photograph taken of Lenton in Holloway Prison (held at the National Portrait Gallery).
Arson, bombs and the Epsom Derby
Suffragette militancy increased following the infamous ‘Black Friday’ atrocities of 18 November 1910, when suffragettes marched to Parliament Square and were brutally treated by police. Things came to a head in 1913 and Surrey saw a spate of activism with Surrey Constabulary dealing with three suffragette bombs.
Surrey Constabulary records include reports of suffragette activity in the county. One report relates to an explosion in a back bedroom of a house being built for David Lloyd-George, Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, at Walton on the Hill on 19 February 1913. The bomb is described in detail and there are several witness statements. There were no casualties as none of the workmen were on site but around £500 worth of damage was caused (nearly £55,000 in today’s money). Those responsible for planting the device were never identified. However, copies of The Suffragette newspaper were found at the scene and Emmeline Pankhurst had spoken locally. Emmeline was arrested by the Dorking Division police and imprisoned for procuring and inciting women to commit offences contrary to the Malicious Injuries to Property Act, 1861. There is an account of her detention in the Inspector’s sitting room at Leatherhead Police Station and to her sleeping in one of his bedrooms because the Director of Public Prosecutions wished her to be ‘treated with due consideration as to her comfort’ (SHC ref CC98/11/3).
The extract from the report by Superintendent Henry Coleman reads: “…Sir Frederick Wodehouse, of Scotland Yard, Assistant Commissioner of Police informed me that it was the expressed wish of the Director of Public Prosecutions that Mrs Pankhurst when in custody should be treated with due consideration as to her comfort, and for that reason I got Inspector Tudgay to let her stay in his sitting room and to let her sleep in a bed in one of his bedrooms.”
Pankhurst was sentenced to three years but her hunger strike actions meant that, under the Cat and Mouse Act, she was released and re-arrested on several occasions (she was never forcibly-fed). Read more about the bombing of Lloyd-George’s house.
At Englefield Green in the early hours of 20 March 1913, an empty house belonging to Lady White, called Trevethan, was nearly totally destroyed by a suffragette arson attack. Elsie Duval (real name Millicent Dean), and Olive Beamish (also known as Phyllis Brady), were later convicted and sentenced to six weeks in Holloway Prison where both women immediately began hunger strike. Elsie was the first person to be released under the Cat and Mouse Act. In response to the growing fear of Suffragette activity following the fire at Lady White’s house, the picture gallery at Royal Holloway College in Egham was closed.
A second Surrey Constabulary report relates to an explosion at Oxted railway station during the night of 3 April 1913, when a bomb was left in the gentlemen’s toilet. The Police records describe the construction of the device, the damage caused, and the identity of one of the suspects as ‘Miss Frida Kerry’ of Battersea (the wife of Polish academic Harold Laski), a known suffragette activist who was a friend of the Pethick Lawrences (SHC ref CC98/11/2). The case was never solved. Read more about the Oxted Railway Station bombing.
The most famous act of militancy came in June that year when Emily Davison, a member of the WSPU, gave her life for the cause, dying as a result of injuries she received from being trampled under the King’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby, on 4 June. Suffering fatal injuries, Emily never regained consciousness and died in Epsom Cottage Hospital on 8 June. There is much controversy as to what she intended that day but it is generally accepted that she was attempting to pin suffragette colours onto the horse’s reins. The suffragettes honoured Emily Wilding Davison’s ultimate sacrifice by accompanying her coffin on a procession through London and dedicated an entire issue of The Suffragette to her. Emily had previously been a student at Royal Holloway College, Egham.
Whatever her intentions, there is some evidence to suggest that Emily Davison was also involved in the planning of a fire at the Members’ Stand at Hurst Park Racecourse, West Molesey, on 9 June 1913. Unaware of Emily’s death, militant suffragettes Kitty Marion and Betty (Clara) Giveen carried out the attack and were arrested for the deed. Their trial was held at Guildford on 3 July where they were sentenced to three years’ penal servitude and immediately went on a hunger-and-thirst strike. Both were released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act and recuperated at a house in the Surrey Hills. Later that month, a bomb was left at Haslemere station but failed to ignite.
Causing damage to golf courses, as an attack on male dominated organizations in the county, was a popular act of suffragette militancy. Interestingly, Woking Golf Club, of which Ethel Smyth was a member of the Ladies section, received no damage. A bomb was placed in the pavilion of Limpsfield Lawn Tennis Club on 12 May 1913 but was dealt with before it could do any damage. In other counties cricket clubs were also targeted.
There were incidents in the east of the county in 1913 in Woldingham, two of which were attacks on property under construction by Alfred Matthew Cawthorne. In August at ‘Heathdown’, The Ridge, a bomb was planted near the property’s staircase and caused fire damage. A copy of The Suffragette was left in the front garden. In September at ‘The Hermitage’, Park View Road, “Votes for Women!” was chalked on doors and walls inside the building and suffragette literature distributed at the scene. Workmen’s tools were taken and this was blamed on suffragettes. The same night the Station Master’s office at Woldingham Station was broken into and although nothing was taken a hand written “Votes for Women” note was left. No one admitted to either incident and the press speculated that the latter might have just been thieves trying to place blame on suffragettes.
Churches also came under attack. On 12 June 1914 Chipstead Church was mildly damaged following a smoke bomb attack. The next day a pavilion was destroyed at Reigate. Following the destructive fire at Hatcham Church, near Peckham, London, allegedly at the hands of militant suffragettes, it is clear that churches in Surrey were concerned that they would also be targeted. At All Saints Church, Warlingham, a short-term insurance policy was taken out by the Vicar and Churchwardens in July that year, against the possibility of wilful damage being done to the church specifically by suffragettes (SHC ref 6022/1/4/4). The policy is accompanied by an account of a conversation of Mr A C Jones with the Superintendent of Kenley Police Station about the threat of ‘a possible outrage on Warlingham Church by Suffragettes’. The police stressed they were keeping a careful watch on all the churches in the area, and advised Mr Jones to watch out for any strangers attending church services and to search the church afterwards in case they had left burning material behind them.
A postcard of St Catherine’s Church, Hatcham, South East London, the target of a suffragette bomb, 6 May 1913 (SHC ref 8511/169/1-2). The card was sent to Miss Muriel Flint in Bulawayo, South Africa, from “Blanche” of 35 Astbury Road, Peckham, 13 June 1913, and reads:
“My dear Muriel, this is the promised P[ost].C[ard] of the burnt church. The Salvage Corps afterwards found a copy of “The Suffragette” and matches and paraffin etc. in the organ chamber where the fire broke out; a suffragette attacked the King’s horse at the Derby and died last Sunday of her injuries. I expect they will make a fuss about their first martyr. Hope all are well, fondest love Blanche”. Postscript: “Weather has not been at all June-like, so windy and showery”.
However, not all suffrage supporters were in favour of forceful protest. Read about the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) campaign and how local branches made their mark in Surrey through peaceful protest.
Suffragette arrest and amnesty papers held at The National Archives list several other militant women with Surrey connections, including Edith Marian Begbie of Wimbledon (suffragette disturbances at Westminster), Mrs Lucy Campbell of Molesey (suffragette disturbances, 1911), Miss Henrietta Helen Olivia Robarts Fargus (born in Richmond-upon-Thames; Suffragette amnesty of August 1914: index of women arrested 1906-1914), Mrs Harriet Heasman (born in Oxted;sSuffragette amnesty of August 1914: index of women arrested 1906-1914), Edith Catherine Mott (born Walton on Thames; Registered Papers, Holloway Prison, 1912), and Miss Beatrice Maria Rosa Sotheran of Dorking (suffragette disturbances at Westminster).
Following the outbreak of war in August suffrage action was halted and Emmeline Pankhurst advised women to support the war effort by entering the workplace. The Surrey Advertiser reported ‘that the militant suffragettes had decided to refrain from their evil works’ (5 August 1914) and apart from a small minority, suffragists and suffragettes alike rallied behind the war effort and turned their energies to the same goal. In return the government declared an amnesty for suffragettes, issuing the King’s Clemency Order and pardoning any political offences that they had not already served time for. Having been arrested and imprisoned in Holloway on three occasions for her militancy, Claygate suffragette Norah Dacre Fox was duly released under this measure. Norah, who was Honorary Secretary of the Kingston and District WSPU and General Secretary of the national WSPU, had endured forcible feeding as a result of hunger strike for which the WSPU awarded her a medal with three bars.
With thanks to Elizabeth Crawford for additional content.
Discover more about suffragette activism in Surrey:
The following March of the Women project blogs focus on suffragette activism in the county: